We’re excited to share the second discussion in our SFF event! Kayla Whaley, Natasha Razi, and Corinne Duyvis will discuss the topic of magical disabilities in fantasy and sci-fi. First: some introductions.
Kayla Whaley: I’m a senior editor here at Disability in Kidlit as well as an MG/YA author and an essayist focusing on disability and sexuality.
Natasha Razi: I’m a non-senior editor at Disability in Kidlit. I write YA and adult things, and I am less cool than Kayla.
Before we begin, let’s outline what we mean by “magical disability”—for the purposes of this chat, at least.
Natasha: The first category of “magical disability” that we tend to see in fiction involves characters who have real-world disabilities, which cause magic. The blind person can see ghosts / the future / spirits, or has their other senses supernaturally amplified. Neuroatypical people (I especially see this with brain damage, schizophrenia, and autism) have mystical knowledge. Things like that.
Kayla: The second category is similar, but occurs in the opposite direction. Here, the character’s magic causes the disability, such as a character’s precognitive visions causing narcolepsy. This can work in one of two ways. Either the visions straight-up trigger narcolepsy, or the visions come with physical consequences/side effects that look like symptoms of narcolepsy. Books aren’t always clear which it is.
Corinne: The final category we’re working with is “magic co-opts a disability and redefines it.” Unlike a magical ability resulting in a (perceived) disability in an individual or individuals, this is where the narrative explains that magic is the root cause of all instances of a certain disability.
For example, in real life, we may think that autism is a natural human variation; the story will explain that, actually, autistic people act differently because they were affected by something magical as a child, or because they’re distant descendants of aliens. Typically, there is no instance of actual, unrelated autism in this world.
Kayla: Obviously, we aren’t saying that stories/characters using these tropes are necessarily harmful, nor are we saying the examples we’ll use are categorically bad. We’re just using these definitions as a starting point to discuss and dissect this trope.
Corinne: In fact, we might use examples from books we haven’t even read; that’s not a commentary on the actual book, and we’re not saying that’s how it actually plays out in the book. We’re talking about the trope, not specific instances of it.
What I like is how these definitions seem hugely different if we’re looking at it from a worldbuilding perspective—which, as an SFF writer, I’m very interested in—but a lot of the end results are the same, or we wouldn’t be grouping them together in this chat. So what do they have in common? They inextricably link a character’s disability to magic (or sometimes science), right? Anything else, or do we want to talk about what that means?
Natasha: Regardless of the cause, these tropes usually start by depicting a character as disabled, and then reveal the magic after the fact, often as a “shocking twist” moment.
Corinne: Hey, I like that observation. You’re right, that’s probably a huge factor. And most casual readers probably wouldn’t even care about the differences we outlined earlier. They just see the disability-wait-no-it’s-magic! part.
Kayla: Right, and these are often subtle differences that determine which category each one falls into. But I think it is useful to talk about them as distinct things, not least because they imply distinct things.
Corinne: Right. Especially because we’re approaching this as writers, who absolutely have to figure out which category we’re working with. And as much as I love these clear definitions we outlined, they’re still not always sufficient. For example, sometimes the magic-slash-disability connection isn’t explicit in the text, just implied. I’m thinking of Michael Grant’s Gone here, in which a lot of people have powers, but the sole autistic kid just happens to be twice as powerful as everyone else. It’s never said that his autism is responsible for it, but I definitely still saw it as an example of the trope.
Kayla: Yeah, no definition is ever going to encompass every possible example. I think cases like that are especially interesting though, because they’re relying on assumptions that the (abled) audience is going to bring with them. Disability = magic. That’s one effect of these tropes being so widely used: audiences begin expecting it, so the author doesn’t even have to make it explicit.
Natasha: Yeah, I feel like unless you make it explicit that the two aren’t related, it’s easy to assume they are, given the prevalence of the trope.
Corinne: Yeah. Though that wouldn’t be the case for every situation, right? Like, if it were, say, an amputee with the power to turn invisible, and he’s better at turning invisible than anyone else, it would be easier to see them as not connected. Because, well, sometimes disabled people just have unrelated talents. If you’re writing disabled protagonists, you’ll run into it eventually, as protagonists are often exceptional in some way or another.
Natasha: Well, there are some disabilities more often connected to magic than others—I can’t off the top of my head think of a lot of magical amputees, for example?
Corinne: Yeah, I think blindness and anything neurodivergent are probably most often used. Epilepsy and narcolepsy in particular might be tied to historical ideas about those conditions being linked to the supernatural.
Natasha: Agreed. One thing I really appreciated about The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer—Mara both has PTSD and special powers, and the story is very clear about both of these things being true, and about drawing a line.
Kayla: True, Corinne, and the links between disability and magic tend to make some sort of sense if you look at them sideways. Blindness – visions. Mental illness – hears voices, sees ghosts, whatever.
Corinne: Epilepsy/narcolepsy – out-of-body experiences or magical connections. Our reviewer Elise Phalen highlighted that specific instance of the trope in her review of The Islands at the End of the World, for example, and I’m also reminded of Slide, which—based on the flap copy—uses a similar trope. (I’ve read neither of these, for the record.)
Natasha: I often find that the “mentally ill person hears voices / sees ghosts” example feels like an attempt to make sense of mental illness, both historically and in fiction. For example, a schizophrenic person hearing and saying things that don’t make sense to a listener could be “explained” by the person’s supernatural insights. You see that with schizophrenia, or PTSD with schizophrenic features, even outside of the fantasy genre—e.g., mystery novels will often involve trauma victims whose seemingly incomprehensible rambling are, in retrospect, clues.
Corinne: I like that observation, Natasha: There’s definitely non-magical instances of the magical disability trope. Same with the “autistic witness” that you see sometimes in crime shows/movies. I’m thinking of Silent Fall, Mercury Rising, a Criminal Minds episode I don’t remember the title of …
Natasha: Yep! I noticed with my own examples that it’s often about a character having ~mystical knowledge~ that they can usefully share with the protagonist.
Corinne: I feel like a lot of this might be writers seeing “strange” disability stuff and having their imaginations take over. Ohhh, interesting, how could I use this? Such a fascinating plot element!
Kayla: Oh, absolutely, Corinne. And I get the impulse! We’re so used to looking for story inspiration everywhere, in all the strange details of real life, that I can see why writers see disability and think “that’s a gold mine,” but obviously the execution tends to be lacking.
Corinne: Right! I’ve absolutely noticed myself thinking the same thing, coming across certain conditions and situations, before needing to reel myself in.
The “fascinating plot element” bit actually ties into one of the big things that annoys me about this trope. A lot of the time, it’s a huge plot device, and it’s kind of cheap. The magical person is disabled (and this goes particularly for “unreliable” neurodivergent people) because then you can make them completely overpowered. You’ll be able to use the ability when it’s convenient, but you don’t have to explain why the character doesn’t just wave their hands and fix it all. Because they’re disabled! They probably don’t even realize what’s going on, or have no clue how to access their abilities consciously. Gag. So it’s something that conveniently enables plot yet provides a convenient obstacle at the same time.
Natasha: I think that ties into the running issue of disabled characters being sidelined. Because these characters are often minor parts, their roles can be shrunk down to their disability and the related magic. Obviously this isn’t always the case, but I do think there’s a strong correlation between how minor the character is and how much they exist as a convenient plot device.
Corinne: Right. Who needs character arcs or development, right?
Kayla: For sure. Having a disabled character be ˜magical˜ often reads as a justification of their very existence. Because what else could a disabled character possibly bring to the table? So they become objects, plot devices, obstacles, mysteries, etc.
Corinne: Justification sounds about right. And that’s sadly not too far from what we see in real life: If you’re going to be disabled, you’d better have some kind of amazing talent or be super amazing and saintly to make up for all the trouble you are. It’s got to be “balanced out.”
Kayla: And that’s where these tropes extend their reach into real life in horrifying ways. Disabled people—in fiction and outside of it—aren’t allowed to simply be disabled.
Natasha: “You’re depressed? You must be really artistic, right? You’re autistic? I bet you’re super organized and smart. You use a wheelchair? What an inspiration to us all!”
Kayla: A family member once told me he thinks all people born with disabilities are also given “special gifts” to make up for it. Not exaggerating.
Corinne: Gross. I mean, I’m not surprised, but come on.
Kayla: But to tie it back to these specific tropes, that what they ultimately say. That exact same thing.
Corinne: And I think that’s why it’s often harmful. If that’s the only context you see yourself in—a plot device, thinly developed, only tolerated or involved because of your useful magic … ouch.
Natasha: All that said (and all that agreed to), I don’t think it’s inherently a bad thing to have a character who is disabled and magical, and to have these things be related or even intrinsically tied to each other. (There are admittedly some aspects that probably are inherently problematic—I personally have a major pet peeve about magical abilities that cancel out disabilities.)
Kayla: And at the same time, from a writing perspective, I think it would be an overcorrection to never talk about how magic and disabilities might interact
Corinne: But I am wondering, is it always harmful? I’m thinking particularly of two reviews we’ve run on the site: Ada Hoffmann reviewing Silence by Michelle Sagara, and Ellen Rozek reviewing The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans.
… DOUBLE JINX!
Anyway, To quote from those reviews for clarification … Ada Hoffmann about an autistic character in Silence:
And since his brain works differently, he’s also less affected by certain necromancer spells than other characters—which allows him, in a crowning moment, to save Emma by hitting a necromancer with one of his D&D books … (Though after that, the idiosyncratic reaction to magic isn’t mentioned very much and doesn’t become a very big part of the plot, which arguably stops it from veering into Magical Disabled Person territory I personally think that, since autistic people’s brain wiring is known to be different, and we frequently have idiosyncratic reactions to medicine and other things, an idiosyncratic reaction to magic is a perfectly logical thing for some of us to have!)
Although I am frequently wary of sci-fi or fantasy novels that seek to create some logical yet mystical explanation for specific disabilities, I have to admit that I was pretty intrigued to see a protagonist whose ability to manipulate electricity might be tied to his Tourette’s Syndrome. Because TS is itself a constantly changing condition that appears differently in every individual who has it, I think it would be really interesting if the same neurological instability that causes tics and creates variations of tics was responsible for the variations in Michael’s powers. Building a link between Michael’s condition and his abilities could be disastrously stereotypical in the hands of another author, but I was so pleasantly surprised by the deftness with which Evans worked TS into Michael’s story that I’m convinced he could pull it off.
Clearly, the dislike of the trope is not universal. So how can it be used without being gross?
Natasha: Sometimes, having magic manifest in a way that resembles a real-life disability strikes me as more of a logical extension of the ability, rather than as a cheap plot device. For example, it makes perfect sense to me that certain uncontrolled psychic abilities would read as mental illnesses to characters within the story.
Corinne: I agree. I may be biased because this is what I did in my debut, but I think I’ve also seen it in other books where I didn’t mind it.
Kayla: I think it really all comes down to execution. What role does the character play in the narrative? Are they treated as a full character with an arc, development, etc.?
Natasha: Also, it’s a matter of how the disability is treated—is it just there as a gotcha? Does it receive the same respect that we hope a real-life disability would receive?
Corinne: I think one of the things that bothers me personally is that, even when everything else is handled respectfully, and even if you have a pseudoscientific explanation, the idea of disability being inherently connected to magic can imply that all these disabled people work the same? This isn’t entirely related, but I remember that the third episode of the TV series Haven frustrated me immensely. To quote Wikipedia: there’s “an upheaval at the local psychiatric hospital involving something that causes the mad to become sane and vice versa.” Like it’s a switch you can flick on and off. But often disability is much more nuanced. It differs in symptoms, cause, severity, presentation.
Kayla: Yep, and I think one of the easiest ways to avoid that particular trap is to have more than one disabled character. That way you can show variation and explore how the magic might affect different people (even with the same disability!) in different ways. And from a writing perspective, that’s likely going to lead to a richer story.
Natasha: That’s an excellent point, Kayla.
Corinne: I would be bothered less if it were implied as a sort of boost. Like, “theoretically everyone could learn to understand this alien language, but because this particular autistic person is very good at picking up on patterns and seeing the underlying sound behind the emotion, they’re faster at picking it up.” Which is different from: “Autistic people can instantly, magically understand this alien language.”
Kayla: Right! That seems more like a logical extension of someone’s disability. Disabled people often do have specific talents that nondisabled people don’t, or they’ve adapted in very specific ways that might be beneficial. Exploring that through magic makes sense to me.
Corinne: You see this a lot in comic books. Eventually they start applying their powers in all kinds of new, creative ways because writers want to do something fancy and new. I guess that’s related to Toph in Avatar: the Last Airbender.
Kayla: Oh man, Toph is such an interesting example.
Corinne: She’s the Best Earthbender Evar. She’s blind, and she uses her earthbending power to feel the vibrations in the earth and thus create a semi-3D image of her surroundings, enabling her to move around completely independently. Plus, she can do things that no other earthbender has been shown to do, such as bending steel or telling whether people are lying by feeling the vibrations of their pulse. (I dislike that last one because I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t work like that, science-wise.)
Natasha: Lie detectors have in fact been consistently scientifically disproven, yes. I have extremely mixed feelings on Toph, because in some ways I feel like she falls into a trope that I automatically dislike: the disabled character whose magic abilities lessen or erase her disability. See Toph’s early quote about having always been able to “see.”
On the other hand, she’s an important and extremely well-done character, who has her own arc and who isn’t defined by her disability, which reduces a lot of my frustration.
Corinne: I think you can definitely criticize things about the character (I have the same doubts you do) but at least it does make sense in-universe that she would put her earthbending power to a different use. And it makes sense that, by extension, she’s a better earthbender, because she uses it in very different and more nuanced ways than “throw rocks.” Again, it’s not “she’s blind and therefore the best” but “she’s blind, therefore she has different needs and uses her abilities differently, leading to particular extension of those skills, etc.”
Kayla: And I do think it’s important to note that her abilities (magical and otherwise) have limits that seem realistically tied to her disability. For instance, she can’t read print, she can’t “see” in water or sand or air, etc. Which doesn’t mean she fully avoids the tropeyness, but it does seem to mitigate it in interesting ways.
Corinne: Sometimes it’s still done to an extreme that makes me roll my eyes, but I definitely find it much less problematic in those contexts. But I think that’s probably getting away from the main topic a little, since it’s not technically “magic that no one else has” but just a character applying the same magic differently/better … but it’s definitely an interesting and logical way that disability and magic could interact.
I think one problem is when it becomes too convenient. Like the only deaf character also conveniently being the only telepathic character so they can communicate no problem. Or the only blind character conveniently being able to see through other people’s eyes, which is apparently the case in Westerfeld’s Zeroes. (I haven’t read it yet.)
Kayla: Yep, and again, that’s where the execution matters so much. And where the author needs to be so thoughtful and attentive to the assumptions and intentions underpinning their choices
Corinne: So, we’re agreed that logic is a good way to mitigate the problematic elements of this trope. Disability leading to particular strengths that can play into a character’s magic or how they use it makes sense.
The opposite also makes sense, like Natasha brought up earlier: magic having logical side effects that are seen as disability. A popular example here is Percy Jackson. He’s thought to have dyslexia and ADHD, and this later turns out to be because he’s a demigod, meaning he’s “wired to read Greek” and has unusual energy that he needs to burn off. (Specifically—all demigods have these side effects and tend to get diagnosed that way.) I don’t quite remember how the books put it—that he had the symptoms and people interpreted it as dyslexia and ADHD, or that his demigodhood caused the conditions. The effects on the character would be identical, even if it’s different from a meta point of view.
For this discussion, I’d like to look at the “looks like [disability], and therefore is interpreted that way by others” definition. I have Thoughts on this, but I’m curious about yours?
Kayla: I don’t feel like the “wired to read Greek so dyslexic thing” makes sense?
Corinne: I’ve got sort of complicated thoughts on this. I like it in theory, and if you go down to the basics, it’s what I do in Otherbound, in which a character affected by magic acts a certain way which is perceived as disability by his surroundings. (In his case, epilepsy.) So I definitely like the idea, but I have doubts about the execution. And yeah, Kayla, that’s one of those doubts.
Riordan apparently wrote it to give representation to his son, who has both dyslexia and ADHD. This could indicate that he had the disability as a starting point, then came up with in-story reasons, rather than having the magic as a starting point and seeing how the side effects can be interpreted.
I don’t like to speculate about author’s intentions generally, and it doesn’t particularly affect my thoughts on the book. It’s just an interesting potential difference that could play into some of how this trope is handled.
Natasha: One of my favorite series is the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, which has a disabled non-magical character, a character who has magic and has a disability (but the two factors aren’t related), and a character who has magic that manifests as a disability.
One of the things that the author, Sarah Rees Brennan, does which I really appreciate, is give a lot of weight to the non-magical disability. She treats it with respect and makes it integral to the character, and she’s honest about the limitations it causes without ever treating the character as weaker or less competent. That makes me a lot more open to the magical disabled characters, because it doesn’t feel like disability is just there as a plot device.
Corinne: As much as I enjoy Percy Jackson, that did bug me. There are no regularly disabled characters. I saw the movie first and read the book shortly after, so I may be blending them, but as far as I remember, you’ve got: (1) Percy, whose (perceived) ADHD/dyslexia are a result of being a demigod. (2) You find out that his disabled friend, who uses crutches to walk, is actually a satyr and uses the crutches to cover that up, and he can run like hell in his natural mode. (3) A wheelchair user is introduced, who turns out to be a centaur.
Every time, disability is used as a convenient way for magic characters to blend into the real world. This makes sense within the confines of the plot, but I’d really liked to have seen characters who have actual, real-world disabilities, as opposed to simply resembling those disabilities or using disability as a practical costume. On several occasions, you get your hopes up for disability rep—and you’re disappointed every time.
I absolutely agree that fake disability, or magic disability, or fictional disability, etc. is much easier to swallow with genuine disability rep present. Then it doesn’t feel like it’s just being co-opted or replaced, that it’s not just there as a plot device, doesn’t imply that genuinely disabled people have no place in the narrative, etc.
Natasha: That seems especially bothersome in context of writing the story because your son is disabled. It seems to be saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you weren’t disabled, and were magical instead?”
Corinne: So for me, I think this trope is frustrating if (a) I get duped into thinking there’s actual disability rep on multiple occasions, only to go, surprise! magic! and (b) there are no other, regularly disabled people present.
From a writer’s PoV … when I was writing a similar situation, I tried hard to think of how to approach it that wouldn’t be trope-y. I took care that at no point would a reader be led to believe there was genuine epilepsy rep; it’s clear from the start that it’s magic having consequences that are wrongly interpreted as disability. I also had other disabled people in the story, including the character himself, who has a separate real-life disability.
But that doesn’t work in all circumstances. Sometimes, a main character isn’t aware that they have ˜magic˜ and genuinely think of themselves as disabled until they’re proven not to be—like Percy Jackson. So I wonder how you could approach a situation like that? Where they only find out later?
Natasha: Well, I think you can start by highlighting ways that it doesn’t fit the disability it’s described as, right off the bat. So at least you don’t have readers disappointed because they thought their own specific disability was being represented. And I think in that case, having real disabilities in addition to magical ones also goes a long way.
Kayla: I think the issue of rep is such an important one when thinking about these particular tropes. Disabled folks get so little (decent) representation as it is, that it seems especially cruel to promise rep and then reveal, haha! Nope. But I don’t honestly know how to get around it if, as you said, the character genuinely believes themselves to be disabled.
Corinne: I do think Percy Jackson, for one, handled this trope better than many others, though. One element. I really liked was that the “disabilities” don’t spontaneously disappear later in the narrative. I don’t think I quite buy the “wired for Greek” excuse, but accepting that as suspension of disbelief, the fact is that it still manifests similarly to dyslexia. They still struggle with reading English later on in the book. So, it’s still actually disabling, and I like that it’s not handwaved away. And looking at that article I linked earlier, lots kids with these conditions are excited to have representation.
Natasha: I also—and your mileage may vary!—think magic-manifesting-as-disability should still be treated as disability, rather than vanishing once the magic is revealed.
… jinx again.
Kayla: That was literally what I was just typing!
Corinne: Hahaha. Double jinx narrowly averted.
Kayla: It helps if the character’s experiences are treated with the same respect and care as if they had an actual disability, because if they genuinely believe they’re disabled … well, then treat them as though they are, even if the root cause is magical.
Corinne: Right. I think the root of the disability matters in terms of representation and implications—if all your disability is caused by magic, what does that say about real-life disabled people? do they not exist? is disability only OK if it’s got a magical reason?—and that’s why we’re discussing these ways to avert it. But for the character, there’s not necessarily a difference. Whether you’re constantly falling asleep because of narcolepsy or because your magical abilities take such a toll on your body, you’re still constantly falling asleep and have to deal with that.
It turns into a fictional disability, like we discussed in last week’s chat and like I talked about in an article about disability metaphors. And if you don’t treat that with respect and a solid knowledge of disability tropes, it doesn’t necessarily matter that it’s not a real-life disability if the parallels are so clear, you know?
Natasha: Agreed entirely. (And I love those articles, by the way.)
Corinne: I think not hand-waving away possible downsides of abilities/magic is just part of interesting storytelling and good worldbuilding, really.
Natasha: Though I still (and I know I’m beating a dead horse here) maintain that real disabilities also need to be present.
Corinne: Yeah. I think that’s one of the best and most obvious ways to avoid the tropey-ness here … or rather, the negative implications of the tropes. Because tropes aren’t bad by nature; it’s what they imply. If you use the trope but can do it without playing into those implications or stereotypes, I don’t think it needs to be a problem per se.
Natasha: I admit it’s at least partially bleed-over from my frustration as a sci-fi/fantasy fan of color. Given that so many sci-fi plots, and a fair bit of fantasy, come down to “let’s write about the experiences of people with color, but make everyone white.”
Corinne: But Natasha! There are green people!!!
Natasha: Your FACE is green people.
But yeah, whether you’re using the experiences of marginalized people to be ~symbolic~ and ~allegorical~ or just because its practical/neat/dramatic for your story, you’re still using those experiences to serve your story. The least you can do is acknowledge and respect the people you’re drawing from, instead of just taking the juicy parts for your story and your privileged characters.
Corinne: To stay on the topic of Percy Jackson, because it’s such an awesome example: I’ve often seen people say that it’s empowering for kids with ADHD and dyslexia to see themselves as demigods, and obviously, lots of kids love it. There’s also a sci-fi MG book that came out earlier this year, Bounders by Monica Tessler, in which neurodiverse kids of all stripes are recruited for a special space program because they’re the most suitable. I haven’t read it yet, so I’m really curious how it’s handled, but again I’ve seen people refer to it as empowering.
So, what about that angle? Can linking disability and magic instead just mean disabled people get to do/be something really cool in sci-fi for a change?
Kayla: My immediate reaction is: but why can’t disabled people get to do something/be someone cool in SFF without being magical? Why aren’t they allowed to exist in those worlds and have those adventures unconditionally? If kids read these books and come away feeling empowered, then AWESOME. I always want disabled kids to feel that. But we should have more. What these tropes offer isn’t enough; it’s just all we’re used to getting.
Natasha: Yeah. Like, if a disabled person feels empowered by reading about a magical disability, it certainly isn’t my place to tell them they’re wrong, but I do think it’s significant that that’s all we get in terms of empowerment.
There are some great books where disabled characters are powerful for reasons unrelated to their disabilities being magic, but those books are few and far between, and most of them lack the kind of mainstream buzz that the Percy Jackson books have. Six of Crows is the only recent exception that comes to mind; someone tell me if I’m wrong.
Corinne: There’s sort of The Hunger Games, but they really glossed over that, especially in the movies. And there’s no real superpower there, so it may not count.
Kayla: I also feel like The Iron Trial does that well. The main character’s disability isn’t tied to his magic and he gets to have exciting, magical adventures anyway.
Corinne: Yes! I loved The Iron Trial. It’s a perfect example. The disability was caused in a magic-related fight, but it’s very much a physical thing, not related to his inherent magical ability whatsoever.
Natasha: Yeah, I really want more stories where characters are magical and disabled and these things are clearly unrelated.
Corinne: I’ve often seen people talk about superpowers like, “well, of course this blind character has visions/superhearing/etc., it’s a world with superpowers, should they just not get to play?? You’re the ableist one for suggesting disabled people shouldn’t be superheroes!” But, like, the blind character could have flight, superstrength, teleportation … ? There are tons of options that are in no way tied to blindness. I absolutely want disabled people to be part of these adventures and magic and get to do cool things But the execution just matters?
Natasha: (I do think a flying blind person could go poorly.)
I want disabled superheroes. I want lots of disabled superheroes. I have strong feelings on the ableism of many superhero narratives. (Feelings that don’t belong in this chat because they are too long.) But I don’t want to be able to read the disability and immediately guess the superpower.
Kayla: And I wish authors would really question why they keep resorting to the same disability/superpower combos.
Corinne: In a world where lots of people have precognition, I wouldn’t mind a blind character having that ability, you know? But if everyone has different powers and the blind character just happens to be the psychic one …
Natasha: I think so many problems with disability rep could be mitigated if authors really sat down and questioned the why of their choices.
Corinne: I mean, more often than not, disability wouldn’t have much effect on what power the character gets. How they use that power, maybe. So just mix things up and consider whether your choices play into familiar tropes.
Kayla: Interrogating your instincts when creating disabled characters (any disabled characters, but obviously especially magical ones since that’s what we’re talking about) would help so much. Because what seem like “instincts” are so often “regurgitated garbage.”
Corinne: According to the “Neurodiversity is Supernatural” page on TV Tropes, an episode of Sanctuary plays with and subverts the whole magical disability trope when it features an autistic boy with a supernatural power—and at the end brings in his neurotypical brother with the same power, showing that the power is unconnected to his autism. I like that an awful lot.
Natasha: That is awesome. And also, three cheers for giving the autistic brother more screentime than the neurotypical one. That’s a major subversion all by itself.
Kayla: There really are so many ways to avoid/subvert these tropes. But that’s an especially clever (and simple!) one.
Corinne: Let’s shift gears to our final category: co-opting a disability by giving a fictional explanation as the root cause.
An example: I haven’t read Harry Potter in ages, but the same TV Tropes page as above says that apparently, it was implied Dementors didn’t just cause depression—they could be the cause for depression. We silly Muggles just think it’s our brain chemistry because we can’t see the Dementors.
Natasha: I don’t know that it implied that? You do see characters who are genuinely mentally ill. And the Dementors are only around for short periods of time, unless you’re in Azkaban, while depression is pretty long-term. (Which JKR presumably knows, having herself had depression.)
Corinne: It’s an interesting hypothetical example either way, though, because it definitely occurs in other books. Like, same TV Tropes article again, apparently in Peter Watts’s Blindsight, autistic people are descended from vampires ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Kayla: Because of course they are, Corinne.
Corinne: I clearly didn’t do due diligence on my family tree.
Using Harry Potter as a hypothetical example, whether or not the books themselves actually did this, do you have any thoughts on this approach?
Natasha: I find that sociopaths are particularly subject to this—in Dexter in the Dark, sociopaths are possessed and implied to be the children of Satan. In Blindsight, sociopaths are also descendants of vampires. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sociopaths don’t have souls.
Corinne: Yes! I think people may use this trope as “clever worldbuilding”?
Natasha: Probably because people have such a skewed perspective on what sociopathy actually means—it’s reduced to “people are irredeemably monstrous” rather than “brain abnormalities lead to atypically low, or nonexistent, levels of empathy and restraint.”
Corinne: I’m sort of mixed. This trope is easier to explain, logic-wise, than some of the other things here. But just grabbing a disability and declaring you’re going to say that all those disabled people are in fact descended from alien experiments and that’s why they’re so prone to schizophrenia, and maybe instead of hallucinating they’re seeing the aliens … or something along those lines. It feels quite disrespectful and further adds to disability as inexplicable, scary, fascinating, other.
Natasha: Full disclosure: I actually have a story with a character who, for supernatural reasons, fits the symptoms of sociopathy. Though I also have a character who, for non-supernatural reasons, is a clinical sociopath.
I personally think that reducing all people with a specific real-world disability to a sci-fi/fantasy explanation is indeed quite disrespectful.
Corinne: Right. I feel like what you have fits what we talked about earlier—magic perceived as disability, like in Percy Jackson and my own book.
Kayla: Yeah, I tend to fall on the side of don’t do that (where “that” is erasing an entire disability because magic). Just like as a general rule.
Natasha: I am as always inclined to give #ownvoices authors more leeway on this, since it’s their disability; they can determine for themselves what’s fair. (Which does not mean that #ownvoices authors cannot write intensely problematic work about their own type of marginalization. See Tennyson. It just means I feel less comfortable judging.)
Corinne: For sure. I’ve had ideas for some pretty fucked-up stories for autism in the past.
Kayla: That is true. I just tend to give #ownvoices authors the benefit of the doubt to start off.
Corinne: Yeah, I think that’s where the difference lies for me.
Natasha: Oh yeah, I’ve come up with several stories that were just teeming with internalized homo/biphobia. *pats my teenage self on the head soothingly*
Corinne: So, we clearly don’t like the co-opting version. Is there a way to subvert or avert it?
Natasha: I honestly can’t think of any good way to subvert it, if you’re going with a broad-scale “explain all people with this disability.” The only way to avert it is what the thing I’ve been saying, and will continue to say, because I am a card-carrying member of the Broken Record Society: include real disabilities.
Natasha: Show that okay, this autistic person is a vampire (which is already pretty problematic, as we’ve discussed), but that autistic person is just autistic, and the only blood they like drinking is blood in soup.
Corinne: So what about if it doesn’t come with magical abilities? It’s just, like, a holdover, a worldbuilding element?
Natasha: I think it’s problematic regardless, honestly. You’re still co-opting an entire disorder and coming up with a sci-fi/fantasy explanation. The only way I can see it working is in a high fantasy or hard sci-fi where everything falls under certain categories, and it’s not just disabilities, but everything, that are thusly explained. For example, if one were to create a world based on the idea of the four humors (phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic, and sanguine), wherein everyone’s traits were determined by a balance of that, I would then find it acceptable to say that people with depression were people with an excess of the melancholic humor. Because all you’re doing is describing the disorder in the terms that already explain everything else in the story, so it’s less othering.
I think the crucial element is that, in that example, you aren’t setting up a world where most people are “normal” but people with a given disability are different and here’s why. Instead, you’re setting up a world where everyone fits a certain system, and a given disability is one of many, many permutations of this universal system.
Corinne: Yeah, there’s a huge difference there.
Natasha: I think that brings me to one of my biggest problems with the depictions of magical disability, and disability in general—it’s often intensely othering, either by implying that disability is ~different~ and ~mystical~, or by implying that disability has no place in this story, but centaurs do!
Corinne: Yup! Which once more comes back to: have other disabilities present. The problem with the co-opting trope is that it doesn’t allow for that method of averting the trope. By its definition, other instances of that particular disability won’t be present. From what I’ve seen, it usually doesn’t thoughtfully engage with other real-life disabilities, either.
So this version seems much harder to play with than the other versions of this trope. To start wrapping up the chat, let’s come back to potential ways to approach or avoid the various shapes this trope can take. We’ve named quite a few methods in the chat already.
Like the Sanctuary example I gave earlier: if you’re going to have a disabled character with a seemingly/possibly related power, you can show that it isn’t directly tied to their disability by introducing other characters with that same power.
Vice versa, you can introduce a character with that same disability who doesn’t have that power. Having other disabled characters is key across all situations.
And if you do want your character’s disability to be related to their ability somehow, think about why? And think about the logic? Are you saying it’s a black-and-white yes/no connection, or is it more subtle, more individual, more logical?
Natasha: And treat magical disabilities as real disabilities; don’t just have the disability vanish once the magic is revealed. Also, please do not reduce your disabled character to a plot device. Don’t just have them exist to provide mystical information or a convenient deus ex machina for your non-disabled lead.
Corinne: And yes, Natasha, that—the convenient deus ex machina. I hate that. Don’t use “but disability” as an excuse to deploy or ignore a particular ability at will.
Give the character an arc, make them an actual character.
Kayla: Yes! Give them agency, a personality, an actual role in the story.
Corinne: In addition, there’s a difference between saying “they have this power because,” and creative use of an ability, like Toph using her earthbending as an assistive tool.
If your character or those around them perceive negative effects of magic as a real-life disability, do what you can to make clear to the reader that it’s not the case. Drop hints, try not to lead on disabled readers about potential rep.
Natasha: Be thoughtful. Be purposeful. Don’t just do the obvious, because the obvious usually reflects a hoard of internalized biases.
Corinne: Try to aim for unusual power combinations, ones we haven’t already seen a hundred times before and that don’t conveniently cancel out the disability. Deaf character with superspeed! Autistic character with ice powers! Witchy wheelchair user!
Kayla: And recognize that, with as few portrayals as we get, every single one matters so very much. The choices you make as an author will have real-life consequences (positive and/or negative, depending) for your disabled readers.
Natasha: Also, if you aren’t writing your own disability, do your due diligence. This also goes for disabled authors writing different disabilities!
Corinne: Ditto if you’re writing a fictional/perceived disability. Just because your character is telepathic and not actually mentally ill doesn’t mean you get to just handwave the actual treatment processes or medications they may be dealing with as a result of that misdiagnosis.
Natasha: Also try avoid setting up the disability as “bad” and the magic as “good.”
Kayla: Oh man, yes to that, Natasha.
Natasha: Disabilities can be difficult. They can be limiting. They can’t lessen our personhood.
Corinne: We talked earlier about ways disability could positively influence magic use encouraging creative/unusual uses, perhaps capitalizing on specific strengths. I was thinking I’d like to see the opposite: a realistic, thoughtful depiction of how certain disabilities could hamper a superpower. Like, Natasha’s observation earlier about blind character with superspeed—in the right hands, that could actually be interesting. Or an autistic character who requires eye contact for their telepathic powers to work.
Natasha: That would be so fascinating.
Kayla: It really would.
Natasha: Recognize the difference between disabilities as a thing that restrict or change our actions and, y’know, abilities, vs. a thing that exists to be pitied or laughed at or handwaved. Also, if you’re going to show the complications that disability can create for magic, actually engage with it, don’t just toss it in for dramatic irony. I offer that as broad advice on disability: actually engage.
Kayla: And understand that many of your disabled readers might come into your story wary. We’ve been hurt, erased, dehumanized, etc. time and time again.
Natasha: Also killed. Can’t forget killed.
Kayla: I think what this all comes down to is recognizing what has come before, the problems with what’s come before, and being intentional about not adding to that. It comes down to questioning your own assumptions and reasons for writing this particular story.
It comes down to treating your disabled characters with the humanity that they (we) deserve.